Why It’s Terrifying to be a Parent
If I can humbly add one small idea to these thoughts…it has been my personal experience (both as a child and a mother) that children are like little radios picking up our frequency. They know the real truth about what we are feeling versus what we are presenting and it is incredibly isolating to find a major discrepancy between the two. When in my grown-up sphere I am confronted with disappointment or my own intolerance and a bad mood to boot, I often name what is going on (in other words, I say, “Mommy is having a hard day, and I am feeling upset”) so that the very mundane human “bad” feelings do not turn into some grim phantom in the room with me. Sometimes I don’t have the maturity in the moment, and when it fails me, I apologize at bedtime when my children and I are having a talk. I have felt my daughter’s whole body sigh in relief when I have simply and very specifically voiced regretting my own behavior. Here’s to doing the best we can.
As a mother of two young children with lives as busy as my own, I am constantly trying to do more than I can. Sometimes with all of the multitasking, school runs, thank you notes and household responsibilities, not to mention my professional life, I feel like I am doing too many things, none of them as well as I could. My main priority, far and above anything else in my life, is my children, their happiness, stability, individualism and well-being. In your opinion, what are the most effective ways to be with one’s children? What is most important in terms of their emotional and mental development? Are there specific things we can do to help them grow up to reach their full potential?
Parents could be forgiven for feeling bombarded by childrearing advice. It begins with a multitude of books, internet sites, and professional wisdom in relation to your infant and it continues into oppressive literature on “toddler taming” and trench warfare in relation to adolescents. In fact, the subtext of all this advice is that if you put your foot down wrong in relation to bringing up your child, you commit “parent crime” and cause lifelong damage to your offspring. How terrifying to be a parent!Undoubtedly different techniques work with different children. Some need firm and clear boundaries. Others are too willing to comply and will respond to praise. But the most important task is to identify the essential parenting ingredient—an absolute stable law that one can use in all circumstances—and adapt the philosophy to suit the task of the moment.
So the big question is, “What’s the most important task in being a parent?” To help us understand, I’d like to share with you some of the findings from brain science. We now know that the human brain is sculpted and created predominantly as a result of the interactions to which the child is exposed. There are two very important parts of the brain that loving care programs. The front part, right behind the eyes, closest to the skull, is called the prefrontal lobe. This area is responsible predominantly for executive functions, i.e., it’s the organizing part of the brain doing the planning, looking ahead, anticipating the consequences of one’s actions, experiencing empathy, and expressing care toward others and the self. This part of the brain helps to calm down and soothe the emotional expressions that emanate from the limbic system: a deep structure mid-brain from which our emotional repertoire, our memories, and our more impulsive reactions emerge.
A well-cared-for individual achieves equilibrium or a sense of balance by using the front part of the brain to calm down the emotional parts of the brain. Children learn through the experience of being cared for how to calm themselves down and organize their own emotions constructively. Deprived and abused children experience challenges. Lack of love leaves an underprogrammed prefrontal lobe, devastating the child’s ability to calm themselves down. Violence, trauma and being in situations of chronic terror overprograms the fear centers of the brain, making the child hyper-agitated, impulsive, and difficult to calm.
“What research shows is that in the presence of a caring companion, the calm from the caretaker’s brain can create calm in the child’s brain.”
We have this knowledge because our ability to scan the human brain has allowed us a closer look and a greater understanding. It is due to this knowledge that the single most important element in a child’s development has come to be recognized as exposure to consistent loving care, which is imparted to the child through their attachment to a mother or father figure. Ideally, it should be their biological caretakers, but it can be any parent substitute who is loving, caring, and consistent.
As a parent contemplates the most important tasks, they need to take on board both the sophistication and the simplicity of being with their child in a thoughtful way. Your children don’t need excessive material goods or constant trips and gifts. The best present you can give them is the availability of your mind. When your child feels you are thinking about them, they will experience being held and connected to you as if they are in your mind and they can similarly carry you in their mind.
“Your children don’t need excessive material goods or constant trips and gifts. The best present you can give them is the availability of your mind.”
So learn the art of just thoughtfully being there: Noticing them, praising them or maybe doing simple things together. It could be a bedtime story, cooking and washing, or going to the park together. You could read books or newspapers to your child or simply notice what they’re doing. While they’re with you, they could draw, do their homework or just lounge around.
What research shows is that in the presence of a caring companion, the calm from the caretaker’s brain can create calm in the child’s brain. Because their brain is not developed fully, very young children will need the adult consistently with them to help them manage emotions and energy. But as the brain develops, the capacity to calm down is “internalized.” The child carries the memories of this ability and can use it to soothe themselves when distressed because they remember how the parent did it.
“When your child feels you are thinking about them, they will experience being held and connected to you as if they are in your mind and they can similarly carry you in their mind.”
Parents can’t be calm and gentle all the time. You will lose your temper, shout and scream and behave impatiently. But if you apologize and “own the problem” as yours, the child will feel they are not the bad one. They will learn resilience, which, in effect, is the ability to fix bad situations and get the good out of them or transform them into positive outcomes.
The best way to think about the parental task is like “banking care” so that your child can draw upon the resource when they need it.
– Camila Batmanghelidjh
Camila is a psychotherapist and founder of the children’s charity, Kids Company.